A neo-Nazi rally in downtown Portland last Saturday led to a fight in front of City Hall, but police didn’t take any enforcement action because they did not see how the fight started and those involved would not provide statements, the city’s interim police chief said.

However, the Cumberland County district attorney said more could have been done to hold the group accountable. And she said she since has met with the chief to improve the response to such incidents in the future.

Interim Portland Police Chief F. Heath Gorham Photo courtesy of Portland Police Department

“In my view, charging disorderly conduct even without a named victim should have been the minimum course of action,” District Attorney Jacqueline Sartoris said in a statement Friday.

The response is expected to be discussed during Monday’s City Council meeting, where the council will be presented with a report from Interim Police Chief F. Heath Gorham about the Nationalist Social Club rally on April 1.

According to police, the club is a neo-Nazi group with chapters based in New England. About 25 members of the group marched through the city last Saturday, stopping in the Old Port, Monument Square, and outside City Hall.

At the time, police said that “some minor skirmishes broke out,” but no official complaints were filed and no reports of serious injuries or arrests were made.



Sartoris said she was initially grateful to hear that the Portland Police Department had responded and attempted to keep the peace, and she was heartened by the presence of counter-protesters and concerned residents who contacted police about the rally.

But she said the response fell short and that after seeing videos on social media, she realized the Portland Police Department needed clearer guidance.

“What I observed certainly called for doing a full investigation, interviewing all potential witnesses, getting the names of several members of the neo-Nazi group, and charging them at the very least for disorderly conduct and possibly for assault,” Sartoris said.

She said an assault charge requires a victim to be named, which was a challenge in the incident, but disorderly conduct charges do not require a victim to be named.

“Charging an available crime would have held these neo-Nazis accountable for violating the law and sent the vital message that these acts are unwelcome in our community,” she said.


Sartoris said she met Thursday with Gorham to clarify what conduct her office will prosecute. “Going forward, I believe Chief Gorham and I agree that there is zero tolerance for violent crime, and certainly not when committed by neo-Nazis,” she said.


A police department spokesperson said Gorham was not available Friday to answer questions about the incident and his planned update to the council. In a memo to the council, Gorham said the police department was not aware in advance of the rally but was alerted to it Saturday afternoon by concerned residents. Officers were monitoring it from a distance when a fight broke out in front of City Hall around 1:30 p.m.

Gorham said officers weren’t able to see who or what started the fight. The first responding officer was confronted with a large, agitated crowd, he said, and he drew his weapon and began giving verbal commands to the group. The people involved in the fight separated and a police sergeant who then arrived at the scene asked a smaller group of people involved if they had been injured and said he would like to get a statement from them.

They said they did not want to write a statement or report and asked if they could leave, Gorham said.

“Due to officers’ vantage point at the start of the fight, their inability to observe how the fight was initiated or which individuals were directly involved, and individuals’ unwillingness to provide statements describing what had occurred, officers were unable to take any enforcement action related to this incident,” he wrote in his memo.



Several councilors posted statements on social media this week condemning racism and hate in an apparent response to the rally, though none of the statements specifically named the group. On Friday, other councilors said they want more information on what happened and how they can hold the group accountable.

“We have no tolerance for the display of bigotry that we saw in Portland this past weekend,” Councilor Andrew Zarro said in an Instagram post. “I am deeply saddened that our community is made to feel unsafe. I’m livid over the hate speech and physical attack on a counter-protester. I reject this violence and see it for the hate it is.”

Zarro said councilors are working with city staff and the district attorney to address the next steps. “We have asked for detailed reports about what happened so we can better understand our path forward,” he said.

Councilor Victoria Pelletier, who in February said she was threatened for speaking out against the display of a banner that said “It’s OK to be white,” also posted on Instagram.

“I want an explanation and accountability from Portland PD (AGAIN) and I want a response from our state delegation and district attorney on what their plans are to ensure our marginalized communities feel safe in this city,” Pelletier said.


Councilor April Fournier also shared a statement: “When a group who has the core belief of hate, intolerance, division, and harm thinks they can come to our streets and spew that venom it is clear we have a problem.”

She said the council is working to understand the incident and develop a response, and she encouraged people to speak out during public comment at Monday’s council meeting.

Fournier, Pelletier, and Zarro did not respond to phone messages or emails Friday about the rally and police response.


Some councilors said they have heard concerns from constituents and are looking forward to Monday’s discussion.

Councilor Pious Ali said he has gotten emails asking what the council’s response will be. “It’s a thin line because we know people have freedom of speech and the right to march and share their political views or whatever views,” he said.


However, Ali said free speech does not mean people have the right to assault or harass others. He said he has seen videos circulating on social media that show the demonstrators beating someone up and using profanity.

“I think situations like that are not protected by free speech, so on Monday I hope to have these conversations with city staff and my colleagues to figure out what the best way is to respond so we don’t have this happening,” Ali said.

“The acts of hatred and violence that occurred are heartbreaking and unacceptable,” Councilor Anna Trevorrow said in an email.

She said she is “in favor of using every legal tool at our disposal to hold perpetrators of hate crimes accountable.”

“We need to get clear on the line between free speech and hate speech to ensure that we are not protecting the harmful actions of neo-Nazism in the streets,” Trevorrow said. “It is not OK and it shouldn’t be treated as such.”

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